Sport Idioms

Sport and sporting events cause great excitement and rivalry among supporters and spectators. Not surprisingly, English is full of sport idioms relating to the sports themselves, and the concepts of fairness, sporting behaviour, success – and failure.

English sport idioms tend to reflect the popularity of sports played in the UK, such as boxing, horse-racing, cricket and other ball games such as football or tennis, while American sport idioms also include idioms to do with baseball and basketball.

In the sport idioms below, the explanations give the meaning of the idiom, rather than the meaning of the sporting terms.


be below the belt = an unfair punch / blow: “His comment was a bit below the belt.”

throw in the towel = give up: “He threw in the towel after weeks of trying.”

out for the count = sleep soundly: “I was so tired last night that as soon as I went to bed, I was out for the count.”

roll with the punches = not be defeated by bad times: “If you work in a competitive sector, you have to learn to roll with the punches.”

take it on the chin = accept bad news well: “Go on, take it on the chin!”

saved by the bell = saved by a lucky intervention: “I was going to give you a Maths test, but you’ve been saved by the bell.”

punch above your weight = have power or influence greater than your size: “This school is only small, but it punches above its weight in national league tables.”

throw your hat into the ring = nominate yourself for a position: “He’s finally thrown his hat into the ring to be president.”

Swimming / sailing

out of your depth = not have enough knowledge / strength etc for a situation: “I’m afraid I’m out of my depth in these negotiations.”

keep your head above water = survive financially or at work: “It’s hard to keep your head above water when times are so hard.”

sink or swim = either succeed or fail: “We’re in a sink or swim situation.”

be in deep water = be in trouble: “His company is in deep water financially.”

smooth sailing / plain sailing = make easy progress: “Her degree course is smooth sailing for her.”

Ball games

get the ball rolling = start something: “Can we get the ball rolling in this meeting, please?”

keep your eye on the ball = keep paying attention: “To do well in this office, you’ll have to keep your eye on the ball.”

the ball is in your court = you need to make the next move: “So you’ve had a reply from the manager. The ball’s in your court now. What are you going to say to her?”

move the goalposts = change the rules: “You could get a grant for travel costs before, but now the government has moved the goalposts and you can’t anymore.”

out of your league = to be outclassed by someone / something: “She’ll never want to be your girlfriend. You’re completely out of your league.”

a level playing field = situation where the opportunities are equal for everyone: “The internet is a level playing field for businesses.”

Horse racing

neck and neck = in exactly the same position as another person: “The two rivals are neck and neck in the polls.”

in the running / out of the running = in or out of the competition: “He’s in the running to be the next president.”


have a good innings = have a long life / tenure: “I don’t think he would have minded dying at the age of 90. He had a good innings.”

be on a sticky wicket = be in a situation that will cause problems: “He’s on a sticky wicket with his legal case.”

Other sport idioms

be in for the high jump = likely to be punished: “Oh no, I’m in for the high jump now.”

run a mile = try to avoid someone / something: “When I hear the words “monthly meeting” I run a mile.”

skate on thin ice = take risks that might lead to punishment: “You’re skating on thin ice with your mother if you refuse to help her around the house.”

jump the gun = do something too soon ahead of time: “It’s jumping the gun to fire him. Let’s hear what he has to say first.”

play by the rules = be fair: “I like my boss. He plays by the rules.”

be fast-tracked = be put on a fast route to promotion: “He’s being fast-tracked in the Civil Service.”

be on a winning streak = to have had lots of recent successes: “Our sales team are on a winning streak.”

be a front runner = someone who’s likely to get something: “She’s a front runner for promotion and a pay rise.”

Sports Idioms

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